John Keegan, an Englishman widely considered to be the pre-eminent military historian of his era and the author of more than 20 books, including the masterwork “The Face of Battle,” died Thursday at his home in Kilmington, England. He was 78.
His death was announced in The Telegraph, where he had served as the military affairs editor. No cause of death was given, though Con Coughlin, the paper’s executive foreign editor, said in an e-mail that Mr. Keegan had died after a long illness.
Mr. Keegan never served in the military. At 13, he contracted orthopedic tuberculosis and spent the next nine years being treated for it, five of them in a hospital, where he used the time to learn Latin and Greek from a chaplain. As he acknowledged in the introduction to “The Face of Battle,” he had “not been in a battle, nor near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath.”
But he said he learned in 1984 “how physically disgusting battlefields are” and “what it feels like to be frightened” when The Telegraph sent him to Beirut, Lebanon, to write about the civil war there.
Mr. Keegan’s body of work ranged across centuries and continents and, as a whole, traced the evolution of warfare and its destructive technology while acknowledging its constants: the terrors of combat and the psychological toll that soldiers have endured.
He had a keen interest in the United States, receiving a visiting fellowship at Princeton, writing meditations on North American wars and briefing President Bill Clinton in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 1994.
Mr. Keegan was particularly concerned with the cultural roots of war, asking, “Why do men fight?” In his classic 1993 study “A History of Warfare,” he argued that military conflict was a cultural ritual from which the modern notion of total war, like in World War I, had been an aberration.
His topics included King Henry V of England, Napoleon and the military machine of Hitler, but he also grappled with warfare in the nuclear age, concluding in “The Face of Battle” that total war was now almost unthinkable. “The suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself,” he wrote.
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